Autistic burnout during the pandemic
Before the coronavirus began to spread around the world, I hit a crisis point in my mental health that made me reassess everything and reach out to people that could help me. Slowly but surely, I began to feel I was getting my life back and steadily recovering from the phenomenon known as ‘autistic burnout’ that I’ve experienced for the last two years.
But very abruptly, everything changed. When lockdown happened, plans I made months in advance had to be cancelled. I had to ceaselessly call the airline to fly home to Chile, where my family are from, as soon as possible. When I wasn’t on the phone I was rushing across supermarkets, making sure I had enough of my staple foods to last me an indefinite many months.
The exhaustion flooded right back as soon as I started to face challenges that I didn’t have the energy or time to process.I had little more than a week to pack my suitcase, make sure that I left no perishable foods, wash everything up, and cancel appointments until further notice. As soon as I sat down on the plane and it dawned on me that this hectic operation was officially over, I noticed how much more sensitive to sensory information I was, and I realised I’d been blocking my reactions to it in order to make the most of my time. It felt as though I was experiencing a year’s worth of sensory and processing issues in just a week, and almost five months later, I still feel like I haven’t recovered from that alone.
What we are currently experiencing due to Coronavirus is new to all of us, and anyone, autistic or not, can experience periods of negative mental health because of it. However, what we experience is different because our basic functioning becomes greatly impaired from processing sensory and communicational information in addition to difficult emotions. Neurotypical people might find the rapid changes in guidelines confusing and the temporary loss of everyday activities might result in boredom, but in our case, change is dizzying, and often traumatising. Autistic mental health hinges significantly on the safety that our routine activities bring us. So uncertainty about our routines and the world in more general terms means going back to normal can hinder recovery from burnout.
Since I’ve been home, it’s been difficult to tell whether the tiredness I’m feeling is part of the burnout or just a normal part of being in lockdown. But seeing as the world won’t be going back to its usual self at any point in the near future, I think trying to differentiate regular-burnout from pandemic-burnout isn’t very helpful for us. Instead, we can try to alleviate symptoms of burnout in a way that is compatible with the limitations we are facing.
Here are some tips that I hope will be useful to others experience autistic burnout at the moment.
Find an environment that meets your sensory needs
Lockdown is unpredictable and you never know how long you’ll need to spend in one place. So making it comfortable can make the wait until it’s safer to go out more bearable. In my case, I love sleeping under my weighted blanket, and wearing fluffy jumpers when it gets cold.
Engage with your special interests
With every day feeling the exact same, it’s easy to feel hopeless and bored, which could lead to or potentially worsen an existing depression. Discovering or reconnecting with a special interest, or taking up a sensible project, can help you feel intellectually stimulated, which in my experience is key to feeling better. I’ve become invested in a TV show about local history, and have also dedicated some time to reading and transcribing my childhood diaries in order to understand my autism a bit better.
Keep to a routine
Use reminders or have someone else help you to keep to a routine. I use Tiimo, an app designed for people struggling with executive functioning, to remind myself of everyday tasks such as cleaning my cats’ litter boxes and taking my medication. By doing this, I feel as if space in my mind is freed to think about other things because I am no longer investing the same amount of energy into remembering my routine step by step.
Watch the news in moderation
Overexposure to news relating to Coronavirus can certainly make us feel more stressed, but we are people that need certainty in order to feel safe, and keeping completely away from the news could potentially worsen our anxiety. Dedicating a small portion of the day to the news can help us feel more grounded, but it also allows you to spend the rest of the day doing things that relax you and restore your energy.
Above all, remember to take care of yourself!
About the author
Josefina is a member of Ambitious about Autism’s Youth Council.